If you’re wondering “what are macros,” odds are you’re well down the rabbit hole of tweaking your diet in order to achieve a weight-loss or performance goal. And it’s an easy question to answer: short for macronutrients, macros are proteins, fats, and carbohydrates—the three groups of nutrients our bodies need in large amounts to support energy, growth, and development. It’s become a buzzword because it’s a more flexible way of dieting than eliminating certain foods.
A restrictive diet—totally cutting out fried foods and sugar, say—limits choices. Macro dieting, on the other hand, is theoretically open to anything. You can have that piece of funnel cake as long as it helps add up the number of grams of carbs, fats, and proteins you’re trying to consume per day. Of course, in practice, just because you hit your daily macros doesn’t mean you can eat whatever you want.
“You can, technically, eat what you like to change your body composition,” says Harry Barnes, lead coach and quality control manager for Legion Athletics. “But don’t expect to be very healthy by getting your protein from cheeseburgers, carbs from Skittles, and fats from french fries.”
How to Count Macros
The first step is to figure out exactly what you’re eating in every meal. Start with the nutrient composition label of a given food: For many foods that’ll be on the nutrition label on the box, but you can use a calculator for any unknowns. Then you’ll have to determine exactly how much of each food you’re eating—a kitchen scale is the most precise way to do this.
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Second, keep a detailed log of how each meal fits into your overall diet. You could do this with a paper journal, but apps make this a lot easier. The leader here is MyFitnessPal, which has built-in macro-counting tools—it starts with a sensible baseline but is endlessly customizable from there.
But knowing how to calculate macros doesn’t answer the most important question: what’s your actual target each day? Registered dietitian and sports and performance nutritionist Cynthia Sass says that there are rough estimates of what targets are good to hit when it comes to calorie counts: 40 to 50 percent from carbs, 20 to 30 percent from protein, and 25 to 35 percent from fat. If your goal is 2,000 calories a day, for instance, you might split that into 40 percent from carbs, 25 percent from proteins, and 35 percent from fat: 200 grams, 125 grams, and 78 grams, respectively.
Of course, if you’re deep into a powerlifting program, you might want to up the protein. “There is no one-size-fits-all,” she says. “It really depends on a person’s training program and goals.” We recommend talking through this with a dietitian rather than winging it or following some plan you found online.
If you decide to start counting macros, be sure to rely on whole foods to hit your targets. They have high levels of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants—the “micros” that are just as important to overall nutritional health. Nut butters, avocado, almonds, rice, lentils, various fruits, and leafy vegetables are all types of whole foods that should be on your shopping list if you’re counting macros. And if we’re talking proteins, especially for bulking up, choices like salmon, chicken, and leaner cuts of red meat are good options.
Timing is also critical: Macros should be evenly distributed throughout meals. If your daily target is 125 grams of protein, then about 30 grams of protein should be eaten at every meal.
O.K., but Should You Count Macros?
We’ve got to say as clearly as possible: this is truly not something anyone needs to do in pursuit of overall health and wellness. Nutrition depends on both the amount of food you eat and the quality of what you’re eating. If you focus only on the quantity, you risk losing out on the micronutrients your body also needs. Obsessive focus on exactly what you’re eating might open the door to disordered eating.
And, again, knowing the answer to “what are macros” does not mean you’ve automatically unlocked a healthier diet. “Every food that contains calories provides one or a combination of the three macros, but the quality can vary considerably,” says Sass. “A donut contains a certain number of grams of carbs, fat, and protein, but will impact your body much differently than a nutrient-rich, unprocessed whole food with a similar macro makeup.”
Lastly, let’s zoom out a bit: Do you want to become a guy who weighs his oatmeal every morning? It might be more trouble than it’s worth. For a good diet without any fuss, Simmons University nutrition professor Sharon Gallagher says it’s much easier to follow generalized dietary guidelines, which will incorporate many of the staples of a macro diet anyway: lean proteins, whole foods, fruits, and vegetables.
“A lot of times my job is helping people figure out how to eat that’s sustainable in the long-run,” she says, and religiously counting macros might not be sustainable for you. “The bottom line is that there is no prescriptive diet recommendation that’s going to work for everybody.”
How to Gain Weight the Right Way
Eat more, for starters. But there’s slightly more to it than that.